Rays’ Shane McClanahan drives for success in an ‘imperfect’ game

The left-hander doesn’t just talk about trying to get better, he’s putting in in the work to improve on his solid start.
Thursday, left-hander Shane McClanahan, 25, will make his second straight opening-day start for the Rays.
Thursday, left-hander Shane McClanahan, 25, will make his second straight opening-day start for the Rays. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 28|Updated March 28

ST. PETERSBURG — Bowling wouldn’t be good for Shane McClanahan.

Not that the the Rays’ strong-armed lefty couldn’t be successful throwing a heavier ball. Rather, that the game can be mastered, with 12 straight strikes leading to a 300 game.

McClanahan prefers the chase for perfection.

That’s why he likes golf so much, with the drive every round for a lower score.

“I can go out there and shoot 95, and I can go out there and shoot 80,” McClanahan said. “I don’t practice, so it’s just very inconsistent, but I enjoy it. I enjoy the hell out of it.”

It’s why he loves pitching for a living, embracing the challenge to find ways big and small to improve every day, plus the once-every-fifth-day feedback of going up against a squad of equally talented hitters.

“You’re always on the quest for seeing just how good you can be,” McClanahan said. “Baseball’s that imperfect game, and it’s kind of like golf —there’s really no such thing as perfection. It’s one of those sports where things could go right but everything felt wrong, or things go wrong but, man, you felt right.

“So that’s the beauty of it. It’s just a different game every single day. You’ve got to show up and just gotta be consistent and understand how to handle it.”

McClanahan so far has handled it pretty well.

After making a historic big-league debut in the 2020 playoffs — the first pitcher ever to do so — McClanahan over parts of the next two seasons is 22-14 with a 2.92 ERA in 53 starts, striking out 335 in 289-2/3 innings.

He earned the start for the American League team in the 2022 All-Star Game based on a dazzling first half. He was entrusted with the ball for the first game of the 2021 and 2022 division series. Thursday, still a month from his 26th birthday, he will be the Rays’ opening-day starter for the second straight year.

Fighting for feedback

To have had so much success so early in his career hasn’t tamed McClanahan’s fierce determination to get better.

“I wish everybody would be like that,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “But, yeah, I don’t think that is all that common given the amount of success that he has had. But he realizes, and I say this to him every day, ‘You’ve got five years to be as good as you can be. It’s right here, man. It’s right in front of you. This is it.’”

Which explains why McClanahan treats every bullpen session like a prime-time start and finds big victories in small gains, such as adding a few inches of drop to his change-up or executing each of his four high-quality pitches better early in counts.

“He’s hungry each time he grabs the ball and throws a bullpen, even if it’s 15 pitches, to figure out how — be it through cueing something, or a slight grip adjustment or a start/finish-point focus on an off-speed pitch — he’s just always trying to improve and make sure that he’s in a better place next time he takes the mound,” Snyder said.

McClanahan says his motivation doesn’t come from the obvious sources: money (he hasn’t made big bucks yet, with a salary last year of $711,400, just above minimum), awards (he was a leading candidate for the Cy Young last year until dropping off in the second half) or statistical achievements (like 20 wins or Chris Archer’s team-record 252 strikeouts).

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It’s more genuine, stemming from team success and personal satisfaction.

“It’s one of those things where I’m very self-motivated and I want to be as good as I can be,” he said. “Not doing it for achievements, not doing it for milestones or awards. It’s that self-motivation where I want to look back when I’m 70 years old like, ‘Man, I gave it my all.’”

For starters, what others say

Those who work closest with McClanahan, the other four starters, are notably impressed.

• Jeffrey Springs, on how good McClanahan can be:

“The talent is through the roof, but then when you add in the motivation and the drive that he has, it’s special. You saw that last year. You knew that from when you saw him debut in the (2020) postseason. It’s a special arm, special talent, and he has the drive, too. Literally, the sky’s the limit for him. He’s got four elite pitches, and it’s really fun to watch.”

• Zach Eflin, on what impresses him most:

“Just how professional and explosive he is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody so explosive, whether it’s on the golf course or whether it’s throwing off the mound. It truly is incredible. Just watching his (recent spring) outing, I mean, the dude’s basically sitting 97-98 every pitch. It’s unbelievable.”

• Josh Fleming, on what he likes about watching McClanahan throw:

“He’s electric. It’s hard not to just smile when that dude’s throwing. He pitches with such emotion, and it’s good. He really fires everybody up. … And he holds himself to such a high standard, and I think that’s really good for him.”

• Drew Rasmussen, on what’s next for McClanahan:

“He started the All-Star Game last year, so, I mean, win a Cy Young, I guess? That’s kind of the only place to go from there. He’s definitely capable. His repertoire is plenty good. His command is plenty good. The work ethic is definitely there. He has all the attributes to do it, and from an individualistic standpoint I think that’d be a great goal for him.”

Snyder agrees with just about everything, especially what Rasmussen said.

The Rays had two other uber-talented hard-throwing lefties in David Price and Blake Snell, and both won Cy Young Awards.

Snyder said “there is no doubt” McClanahan can be considered in the same category.

“Very much so,” he said. “No question. I’m not gonna say any more than that.”

Now it’s up to McClanahan to state his case with his performance.

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